Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Arkansas Traveler

So, where are all the hot springs?

Oh, I see. There's a town in Arkansas called Hot Springs. Sorry. My bad.

OK, then, where are all the little rocks?

Better little rocks than kidney stones, I suppose.

I finally made it to the state capital of Arkansas last week to attend the 38th annual convention of the American Association of Kidney Patients (AAKP), my reward for winning the Renal Network's 2011 Robert Felter Memorial Award. And I hope that the citizens of the great state of Arkansas and the South in general understand that all those disparaging, smartyboots comments I've made in previous blog posts about taking this trip were simply for comedic effect and never intended to be taken at face value.


But seriously, folks, I found Little Rock to be a quaint and captivating little American city, filled with some of the most disarmingly friendly people one could ever wish to meet. Southern hospitality is alive, well, and living in a land that celebrates Bill Clinton and feral hogs, not necessarily in that order.

It is the smallest town ever to host the kidney conference. I asked Jerome Bailey, communications manager for AAKP, if this was the first time the convention ever had been held outside the organization's home state of Florida.

"Oh, no!" he replied. "We've held it in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Chicago...."

Nice award. Wrong year. I coulda had Vegas!

I was impressed by signs in Little Rock National Airport informing arriving visitors of "Airport Angels" scattered throughout the terminal who were ready to offer directions, answer questions and generally act as ambassadors for their beloved village.

At Detroit Metro Airport, the only angels you're likely to see are Hell's.

This is the lobby of the hotel where the convention was held, the historic Peabody, billed as the most lavish accommodations in the state.

The lobby alone is enough to dispel whatever stereotypes I may have held about Little Rock. The Peabody is opulent, its rooms upscale. As you may know, however, in summer Southern Heat is far different from Northern Heat. In August, Northern Heat feels like a thick wool blanket wrapped around your entire body. Southern Heat is the same blanket, but soaked in hot water and pressed against your face as well.

To compensate – and possibly to appease us cranky Northerners – the interior of the Peabody was air conditioned to a temperature somewhere around sub-Arctic. Never have I been so cold in a large building before. By the second day, at every session I was wearing the heavy sweatshirt I was so thankful I had packed.

The Peabody chain, as you might know, is world renowned for its Peabody ducks, a tradition begun in Little Rock. Every day, promptly at 11 a.m., a flock of five ducks waddle down a red carpet and dive into the hotel's lobby pool, where they flap and frolic until 5 p.m. when they return to their evening quarters with much pomp and fanfare.

A word to the wise: If dining in the hotel restaurant, never ask for the roast duck entrée. Bad form.

I did make it to the William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum, which as you can imagine is a source of great pride to the local citizenry.

Regardless of your political leanings, you should visit presidential libraries whenever you get the chance, if for no other reason than to touch a period of American history. The Clinton museum was hosting an Elvis Presley exhibit, which if you remember Bill Clinton makes complete sense. The museum also has on display the saxophone Clinton played on The Arsenio Hall Show the night he essentially secured the nation's black vote. 

However, I looked all over for the one thing I really wanted to see, but never found it: the definition of what "is" is. 

The three-day convention offered breakout sessions with titles like "Preparing Yourself for Dialysis" and "The National Kidney Registry: Understanding the Kidney Exchange Program." They were extremely informative, but no more so than my fellow attendees.

Here I am with my new friend Brad Mayfield. (No relation to the late R&B immortal Curtis, as far as he knows.) Brad and I talked at length about our individual journeys. I got to ask him how it felt to receive a kidney transplant, lose it through organ rejection and then rebound, physically and emotionally.

The greatest component of the AAKP convention was the feeling of being surrounded by hundreds of people who could relate exactly to what you've been going through. I met people who have been on dialysis for 30, 40 years and are still going strong. 

No place for a scintilla of self-pity here. What's that old saying, "I cried because I had no shoes until I met a man with no feet?" 

Just call me Shoeless Jim.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Rockin', Just a Little

This is the week I fly to Little Rock, Ark., to accept my "prize" for winning the 2011 Robert Felter Memorial Award from the Renal Network. My reward is an exciting weekend in exotic, romantic Little Rock, to attend the annual convention of the American Association of Kidney Patients (AAKP).

What's more, I get to write about my experiences for the Renal Network. For free. As a professional writer who makes his living getting paid to string words together, I can't begin to tell you how happy that prospect makes me. Seriously, I can't tell you. Is there no end to the wonderfulness stemming from this honor?

The 2010 AAKP convention was in Tampa, Fla. Like Maxwell Smart used to say, "Missed it by that much."

This week the AAKP sent out an email titled "Things to Do in Little Rock!" It reads, in part:

"Little Rock is an exciting city with a vibrant downtown and entertainment district, a wealth of unique sightseeing, day trip and tour opportunities, excellent restaurants, shopping and museums!

"Famous as President Clinton's first capital city, the cradle of the civil rights movement, and the center of the beautiful Natural State, no city represents a bridge from the treasured past to the exciting 21st century than Little Rock."

Really? No other city? Anywhere? Wow!

Sounds to me like they're trying to suck up to the members who loved meeting in Tampa last year.

And did you know Little Rock was the "cradle of the civil rights movement"? I always thought Rosa Parks boarded that bus in Montgomery, Ala., not Little Rock. Maybe she got a transfer.

"Say you had only 24 hours to take in the sights and sounds of Little Rock?" the email asked. "What would you do?" Well, I probably would stay in my hotel room. But the convention hosts suggest:

• The River Market and downtown Little Rock (every city has a downtown, and almost all have markets; keep going)
• The Old Mill (as apposed to the New Mill?)
• The William J. Clinton Presidential Center (OK, they've got me there; presidential libraries are typically way cool. Wonder if Monica's dress is on display?)
• Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site (where, in 1957, nine brave black teenagers stood up to a raging, racist mob protesting integration at the school, providing the first major test of the Supreme Court's Brown vs. Board of Education decision. Maybe Little Rock isn't the cradle of civil rights; more like the incubator.)
• Craters for Diamond State Park (I didn't book a hotel room so I could go camping; unless, of course, this park has real diamonds.)

The message also pumps Little Rock as "the dining capital of Arkansas," which I trust isn't the same as "the cesspool capital of New Jersey." They recommend eateries named The Pantry, Whole Hog Café & Catering, and Brave New Restaurant. Brave New Diners might be more like it.

Open mind. Open mind. Little Rock is a state capital, after all. Then again, so are Lansing, Springfield and Cheyenne.

I always try very hard to have a good time no matter where I happen to be. I'll let you know if my track record remains intact after this weekend.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Left Holding the Bag

I have just returned home from a grueling 11-day sojourn to Chicago, Florida, back to Chicago and off to Muskegon, Mich., to research my current book, conduct interviews and act as emcee at the wedding of my childhood friend's youngest daughter. Eight different cities, five different hotel beds and countless restaurant meals in a week and a half.

I'm pooped. And just a bit backed up.

And at every stop along the way, my trusty Baxter Home Choice® Automated PD (Peritoneal Dialysis) Cycler machine has been by my side. I realized recently that I haven't really said much about my PD cycler in these musings, which is a sin and an oversight because it's the primary reason I continue to feel as well as I do. In the latest issue of LifeLines, the national patient newsletter of DaVita, a fellow PD user from San Antonio named Jack White describes the procedure more simply and completely than I could:

"The process is so simple most anyone can use PD. First you need a port inserted in the wall of your abdomen. This requires a minor surgery. The cavity in our abdomen that contains the stomach and intestines is called the peritoneal cavity. The lining of the cavity is called the peritoneum and is filled with tiny blood vessels.

"In PD the peritoneum acts as a filter. The peritoneal cavity is filled with a dextrose solution that draws the impurities out of the blood in all of those blood vessels in the lining.

"We hook the solution bags up to the port in my abdomen. The entire process works on gravity. [There's a] drain bag on the floor for the bad stuff.... First the old stuff is drained out of my abdomen into the bag on the floor. The new dextrose solution fills my abdomen and the exchange is done. I'm ready to resume my daily activities. The PD cycler machine is a little computer that directs the swtich back and forth from drain to fill."

                                                             The miraculous Baxter Home Choice® PD Cycler.

It really is an amazing device, especially when you consider that the alternative is traveling to a faraway, antiseptic dialysis clinic multiple times each week, having all your blood sucked out of your body and pumped back in, and being surrounded by masked attendants and fellow sufferers you don't know.

I could not possibly travel as freely and frequently as I do without my cycler. And let me just take a moment here to tell you how wonderful Baxter is. On this trip, after almost two years of near-daily use, eight hours a day, my trusty cycler emitted an ear-bending beep and breathed its last. To make matters worse, its death occurred on the last day of my hotel stay in Sarasota, Fla., and I had not yet reserved my next room somewhere near Miami.

I called Baxter's technical support line and explained my dilemma. "Well, where will you be tomorrow?" my tech, Matt, asked.

"I have an interview in Miami Lakes at 11 o'clock," I said.

"How long will you be there?"

"Two hours or so, I guess."

"Bring your old machine with you. We'll have someone meet you there and swap it out for a new one."

And, sure as the IRS, the next day a Baxter driver arrived at my interview location with a brand spanking-new cycler, dropped it off with the receptionist and took the old unit away before my appointment was concluded. Who says service has gone the way of the Nehru jacket? Very impressive.

The cycler weighs more than 30 pounds, and since it costs more to replace than I'll probably make this year, it never leaves my sight when I'm on the road. I carry it with me on board planes, usually without hassle from the TSA or flight attendants, and because I never know how far it is from my airport arrival gate (why is it always Gate 99?) to the baggage claim, I often swallow my pride and request a wheelchair assist from the gate. Usually, once I sit in the chair and they pile my cycler and briefcase in my lap, no one can see me anyway.

I have tried to make the trek from the gate without a wheelchair. In my slightly weakened condition it feels like dragging a boulder across the desert. At least, that's what I look like I've done by the time I reach the carousel.

Here's my rub: While the cycler rides for free, the supplies it needs to operate – the drain bags, filtering cassettes, clamps, tape and the like – take up so much space they require a separate bag of their own. And American Airlines, which I flew on this trip, licking its greedy chops over the prospect of additional gouging, charged me an extra $60 for that bag of supplies each way of my journey.

That's right. Pick on the sick kidney guy.

I try very hard to fly Southwest, which has no oppressive add-on baggage fees, whenever I can. But there are some places Southwest doesn't go. I'm told there is a way around the extra charge for essential medical supplies. and if anyone knows about this, please educate me. Meanwhile, I'm going to do some research on my own.

I've got another trip, to Little Rock, set later this month. I don't want to be left holding the bag again.